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In the fall of 2021, Nathan Wade had little experience prosecuting criminal cases in the Atlanta area, serving as a municipal judge who mostly dealt with traffic tickets and running a private practice that focuses on family law and contract disputes.
Then, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) tapped him to lead the biggest case of her career, a two-and-a-half year investigation that led to charges against former president Donald Trump and more than a dozen co-defendants alleging that they illegally conspired to try to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia.
Willis’s decision to hire Wade is now facing enormous scrutiny after one of Trump’s co-defendants alleged in a court filing last week that the two prosecutors are lovers who have vacationed together on Wade’s dime in Napa Valley and the Caribbean. The accusations, if true, could present a conflict of interest or could amount to fraud.
The filing contains no proof to substantiate the sensational allegations. But the episode has drawn attention to an arrangement in which Willis’s office hired an outside attorney and paid his firm more than $650,000 over two years to lead a criminal investigation typically managed by civil servants. It also reflects the intense scrutiny facing prosecutors who are seeking to convict a former U.S. president and his allies, leaving little margin for error as their detractors look for any opportunity to scuttle the case.
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Wade has not responded to the allegations in the week since the filing. Willis on Sunday accused her critics of “playing the race card” by attacking her and Wade, who are Black, but not the other two special prosecutors on the case, who are White. Without naming him, Willis described Wade as a lawyer of “impeccable credentials” with decades of experience who helped assemble the prosecution team and bring the case against Trump and his allies. Willis did not address the allegations of an improper romantic relationship or financial benefit.
“I appointed three special counsel, which is my right to do. Paid them all the same hourly rate. They only attack one,” Willis said in remarks before the Big Bethel AME Church, one of Atlanta’s oldest Black congregations.
She later added: “Is it that some will never see a Black man as qualified? No matter his achievements? What more can one achieve?”
The accusations against the prosecutors have sparked widespread speculation and threaten to upend the case, one of four that have embroiled Trump as he seeks a second term as president. Former Trump campaign aide Mike Roman, the co-defendant who alleged the improper relationship, wants the entire prosecution team disqualified and the charges dismissed. Other co-defendants, including Trump, are weighing whether to sign on to the pleading. The judge overseeing the case said Friday he plans to schedule a hearing on the claims next month.
A close examination of Wade’s legal career as well as interviews with those who have known him for years reveals a respected attorney active in public life in Marietta, a northern Atlanta suburb where he lives, but one with little experience comparable to the Trump case.
Though Trump has charged that the prosecution is a partisan exercise by Democrats, Wade has attended local GOP events and describes himself as a “conservative.” He has spent years splitting his time between a private legal practice and public service, serving as a municipal judge in Cobb County, running unsuccessfully for elected judge positions and leading an investigation into deaths at the local jail.
Wade has also been mired in a contentious divorce from his wife, Joycelyn Mayfield Wade, a proceeding that Roman’s attorney claims has produced documentation pointing to the prosecutors’ alleged misconduct.
Wade filed for divorce in November 2021, a day after Fulton County records show he was hired as an outside prosecutor in the election interference case. The divorce filings were placed under seal by a judge in February 2022 — around the time that Wade’s hiring by the district attorney’s office became public. Roman’s lawyer is seeking to unseal the file, with a hearing scheduled for Jan. 31.
Roman asserted in his filing that Willis has benefited personally from Wade’s compensation, claiming, for example, that she joined him on multiple cruises and other trips that he paid for. That could amount to an act of fraud or an impermissible conflict of interest under Georgia’s rules of professional conduct, the filing claims.
“The district attorney’s apparent intentional failure to disclose her conflict of interest to Fulton County and the Court, combined with her decision to employ the special prosecutor based on her own personal interests may well be an act to defraud the public of honest services since the district attorney ‘personally benefitted [sic] from an undisclosed conflict of interest,’” which is a federal crime, Roman’s filing states. It could even result in a racketeering charge against her, the filing claims — the same crime that Trump and his co-defendants face.
Special prosecutor on a high-stakes case
Wade is not the only outside counsel hired to help with the Trump case.
Anna Green Cross, a criminal defense attorney in private practice in Atlanta, has led the state’s arguments in federal court, where several of the defendants are seeking to have the case moved. And John Floyd, another private litigator and one of the nation’s leading experts on racketeering charges, is also assisting on the case.
Wade’s responsibilities have been less public. Although he has occasionally spoken up in motion hearings, he has for the most part assigned that role to others, serving in an administrative capacity behind the scenes, according to Willis aides. He led the team through its preliminary investigation and the proceedings of a special purpose grand jury, which heard evidence and testimony for roughly six months before issuing a report that recommended charges. A regular grand jury issued the indictments in August.
Roman’s filing also included copies of invoices showing that Wade billed Willis’s office in 2022 for two meetings with the Biden White House and another with House of Representatives investigators examining the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump and his allies, including U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) have seized on the billings to bolster their claims that Willis and Wade are conducting a partisan investigation.
Willis has said little publicly about how she came to appoint Wade. A person familiar with the hiring who requested anonymity because they were not publicly authorized to discuss the matter said Willis approached several outside attorneys about taking on the assignment, but many declined, with at least one citing a desire to avoid the politically charged atmosphere and potential attacks from the former president and his allies.
Willis told those close to her that she wanted a person she could trust to handle the scrutiny and pressure of the investigation. Wade had been a longtime friend, dating to when he mentored her when she briefly served as a municipal court judge in the city of South Fulton, south of Atlanta.
Willis on Sunday called Wade “a superstar, a great friend and a great lawyer” with “impeccable credentials,” noting his time spent as a judge.
Roman’s filing alleges that Willis failed to obtain the proper permission from the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to hire Wade.
But Pete Skandalakis, the head of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, which advises district attorneys around the state, said local prosecutors do not have to obtain permission from county commissions to appoint outside prosecutors. Skandalakis, a Republican and former district attorney, said he was not aware of any state rules of professional conduct that address personal relationships between prosecutors.
According to county records, the district attorney’s office paid more than $653,000 to Wade’s law firm between November 2021 and October 2023 — though Wade’s firm was also retained for work on other cases, according to a Willis spokesman. Willis said Sunday that Wade is paid the same rate as Cross and Floyd.
Copies of Wade’s contracts and expense reports disclosed in Roman’s filing say the attorney was being paid $250 an hour for his work on the election case. Wade was hired on a one-year contract in November 2021. The district attorney’s office later signed two contract extensions with Wade — in November 2022 and June 2023 — at roughly six months apiece.
The extensions included more-rigorous language about how many hours Wade could bill per month and limits on how much money he would be paid.
The November 2022 contract — signed just weeks before the special grand jury concluded its work — said Wade could not work more than 600 hours and “shall not earn” more than $150,000 during the period. The June 2023 contract, which ran through Dec. 31 and encompassed Trump’s indictment, said Wade “is not permitted to work” more than 120 hours” per calendar month and limited Wade’s pay to $210,000.
It was not immediately clear if Wade earned more than other outside attorneys retained to work on the election case. But records suggest Wade was earning more than Willis, who makes just under $200,000 a year as district attorney.
Wade tried to advance as a judge
Originally from Texas, Wade moved more than 20 years ago to attend Atlanta’s John Marshall School of Law. He stayed in the area after graduation, beginning his legal career as a prosecutor for the Cobb County solicitor general, which handles traffic tickets and other misdemeanor cases, according to a campaign biography.
He then worked as a prosecutor for “several municipalities” in Cobb County before transitioning to private practice, where he primarily handled family law, contract and civil litigation cases.
Wade has not publicly disclosed his political affiliation, but those who know him say they believe he identifies or leans Republican. In a biography posted on his now-defunct campaign website, Wade described himself as a “conservative family man.”
A frequent mention on the society page of the local Marietta paper, Wade was often listed on published guest lists for Cobb County Republican events, as recently as 2016. He co-sponsored a fundraiser for at least one local GOP candidate, according to a published notice.
In early 2010, Steve Tumlin, the Republican mayor in Marietta, appointed Wade to be a part-time associate judge in the municipal court — the first Black judge on the bench.
“The more I know about Nathan, the more I respect him,” Tumlin said at Wade’s swearing-in. “He is well-respected in the legal community.”
Tumlin did not respond to requests for comment.
As one of a handful of part-time judges, Wade presided over minor misdemeanor cases, often traffic violations and minor criminal offenses such as shoplifting or possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
“It’s a high-volume court,” said attorney Holly Waltman, who has represented clients with a matter before Wade. “He could have 100 cases in a day. You’re getting people without insurance, fender benders, not wearing a seat belt.”
The longest sentence a municipal judge can impose is 12 months and a fine of up to $1,000 per offense. Felonies and more-serious charges are handled in Georgia’s state courts. And the vast majority of the cases in Marietta’s municipal court result in pleas, Waltman said. There are no jury trials in Georgia’s municipal courts and a bench trial, decided by the judge, is a rarity, she said.
“I’ve never seen him reject a plea offer or question it,” Waltman said of Wade, adding that he was punctual and moved through cases with efficiency. “He was very pleasant, very timely, he doesn’t make people wait around.”
Tumlin reappointed Wade to two-year terms multiple times, last extending his post in 2020, when the position paid $250 per session, city records show. He is no longer in the post.
Wade’s efforts to advance to more-senior roles have been unsuccessful.
Since 2010, Wade has run for Cobb County Superior Court judge at least four times, sometimes losing by wide margins. He twice challenged incumbent Judge Reuben Green — including in 2016, when Green was mired in ethics complaints stemming from alleged conflicts of interest that ultimately prompted the Georgia Supreme Court to vacate several convictions in trials he oversaw.
Wade seized on the issue. At a candidate forum sponsored by the Cobb County NAACP, Wade was asked when a judge should recuse themselves from a case.
“If there’s an appearance, just a mere appearance of impropriety, and there’s a request for recusal, just do it, because by not doing it, what you’re doing is hurting the county in the long run, you’re costing the taxpayers a lot of money,” Wade said, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.
Wade was also critical of how Green became a judge. Green, a former state and federal prosecutor, was appointed to the bench in 2010 by then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R). Wade alleged that Perdue named Green to the seat because he was married to one of the governor’s top aides. Green has previously denied Wade’s claims.
In April 2021 — months before he was hired as a special prosecutor in the Fulton County election case — Wade publicly acknowledged his frustration at failing to advance beyond his part-time municipal judgeship despite many attempts. He called out the dearth of Black lawyers who had been appointed to judgeships in Georgia.
In an interview with the Fulton County Daily Report, a legal newspaper in Atlanta, Wade again alleged that nepotism had played a role in Green’s initial appointment to the bench and said the personal connection was unfair to him and other qualified contenders who had sought to be considered for the judgeship.
The governor “appointed Reuben Green without doing any interviews, without posting the position, without taking any applications,” Wade told the Daily Report.
Wade told the outlet that he had called Perdue’s office after Green’s 2010 appointment seeking answers, but his calls went unreturned. He blamed his losses to Green in 2012 and 2016 on the fundraising advantage of incumbency.
“You just want a fair shot,” he said.
On Willis’s team, Wade’s role required him to interact with defendants and witnesses appearing as part of the special-purpose grand jury investigation — exchanges that court records show were sometimes contentious.
An attorney for Gov. Brian Kemp (R), for example, accused Wade of aggressively rejecting requests to negotiate the scope and timing of Kemp’s testimony, charging in emails that Wade engaged in “disappointing, surprising” behavior.
Kemp was of interest in the case in part because of a phone call between him and Trump in December 2020 in which Trump berated him for certifying Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia.
The email prompted a stinging response from Willis in which she accused Kemp’s lawyer of lying. “The email you have sent is offensive and beneath an officer of the court,” she wrote. “You are both wrong and confused.”
In another instance in May 2023, a lawyer representing several of the unindicted Trump electors accused Wade of bullying her clients and lying in court filings about whether she had told her clients that prosecutors had offered them immunity.
“In one case, Mr. Wade made outrageous threats and engaged in intimidation tactics in front of the elector being interviewed when Mr. Wade believed the recording had stopped, threatening to revoke their immunity and indict them (which he has no authority to do), all to try to silence defense counsel and prevent the truth from coming out,” attorney Kimberly DeBrow wrote.
DeBrow declined to comment.
Wade also came under scrutiny last year when his law firm sent solicitations to several of the defendants in the election-interference case — an obvious error since the firm could not represent those people while Wade was working for the prosecution. The mail piece was generated automatically when the defendants were charged, according to aides to Willis.
Several other attorneys representing co-defendants in the case said they have had no issue with Wade’s management style. Requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the controversy, the two lawyers said Wade has been genial and organized.
One said Wade could be a formidable foe despite his lack of criminal experience, noting that civil litigators can be quick on their feet and well-versed in rules of evidence, which are the same in criminal and civil cases.
Wade appears to have friendly relationships with the defense lawyers on the Trump case. When he arrives at hearings with the prosecution team, typically dressed meticulously in colorful suits and pocket squares that match his ties, he nearly always flashes a wide grin and takes a lap past the defense table to shake hands, exchange pleasantries and slap a back or two.
While managing the Trump case, Wade has been embroiled in a divorce that has turned contentious, according to court records obtained by The Washington Post. Joycelyn Mayfield Wade wrote in court documents that her husband had failed to comply with discovery requests about finances and other assets, including profits from his law firm and earnings from his role as a Fulton County special prosecutor.
The couple married in June 1997, taking a cruise on their honeymoon, according to their wedding announcement. They separated in late August 2021, according to a summary of the case filed by Joycelyn Mayfield Wade. The filing described her as a “stay-at-home mom” for 20 years to their two children, who are now adults, and said Wade was the “primary breadwinner” for the family and had left her without access to “joint marital funds.”
Wade, who appears to have represented himself at times during the divorce, repeatedly insisted in filings that he had complied with discovery requests and accused his wife of being “stubbornly litigious and dragging the matter out for no stated reasons.”
In August 2023 — three days after the racketeering indictment against Trump — Cobb County Superior Court Judge Henry Thompson, the second judge to oversee the proceedings, issued an order finding Wade in contempt of court for failing to disclose financial records, including bank and credit card statements.
Wade’s wife said in a September filing that because her husband was “willfully” refusing to turn over information about his work for Fulton County, she would be forced to issue subpoenas. She then requested subpoenas for “documents, information or objects” from the Fulton County District Attorney’s office on Nov. 1 and Fulton County on Dec. 15, over Wade’s objections, according to records.
Willis was served with a subpoena on Jan. 8 — hours after Roman’s filing alleged that she had engaged in an improper relationship with Wade. The subpoena ordered Willis to appear for a Jan. 23 deposition in the divorce case, which would be videotaped.
It was not immediately clear if Wade or Willis will seek to quash the subpoena — or what Joycelyn Mayfield Wade’s lawyer plans to ask Willis. Andrea Dyer Hastings, an attorney for Wade’s estranged wife, declined to comment on specific questions about the Willis subpoena or the case in general.
In late November, Wade retained a new lawyer in the case, M. Scott Kimbrough, who argued that Wade had complied with discovery and was providing for his wife financially as the divorce has continued to play out. Reached by telephone Friday, Kimbrough declined to comment.
Ashleigh Merchant, Roman’s lawyer, has filed a motion in the divorce case to unseal the file, which presumably could include financial records that she has said would back up her claims of an improper relationship between Willis and Wade.
In a statement, Hastings suggested that her client supports unsealing the record.
“We support full transparency among all parties,” Hastings said. “Our investigation as to Mr. Wade’s behavior is independent of any other court case or proceedings. We expect that all questions raised will be addressed.”